Italian Americans gave up their voting bloc some decades ago. We shot our bolt with Geraldine Ferraro who became the first female nominee for U.S. Vice President in 1984. Not all of us crossed party lines but in those days most of us saw the goal post and cheered her on until defeat. We were mostly hopeful Italians then, standing on the shoulders of political icons like Fiorello LaGuardia (New York mayor 1933-1945), Angelo Rossi (San Francisco mayor 1931-1944) John Pastore (U.S. senator 1950-1976), Ella Grasso (Connecticut governor 1975-1980), and Mario Cuomo (New York governor 1983-1994)
Republicans recognized our political division when President Ronald Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986 to entice the “Italian vote.” But, Democrat Mario Cuomo revived our presidential hopes with his grand oratory and eyes on the 1992 national election. Alas, he dashed those hopes in 1991 when he chose not to board a plane to the New Hampshire primaries. Since then, we have gone our separate ways.
It will not be an Italian American bloc that will decide Tuesday’s mid-term elections. As an ethnic group we have no issues at stake, except perhaps more risk to Columbus Day. As Americans, we wonder just where racial/sexual issues and social media are taking us. Are the Republicans the saviors of the old ways? Are the Democrats the messiahs of the new ways?
The irony to any student of history is that both these parties came into being in the 19th Century. Democrats used to be the party of slavery and Jim Crow – the ultimate status quo and White privilege. Republicans were agents of change, the emancipators and the party that created citizenship by birth in the 14th Amendment.
It was northern liberals like Vito Marcantonio (New York’s congressman 1934-1950) and LaGuardia – who ran as Republicans but championed racial equality and social welfare – that helped flip-flop the party platforms.
I have Italian American family and friends on both sides of this election, but despite their love or hate of Donald Trump, they are apprehensive of a diminishing Euro-American future. They may support Obamacare but they resent the government largesse that is institutionally heaped on minority communities and illegal aliens. They may agree that racism still haunts us, but they find the media’s spotlight on every outcry of injustice as pandering to minorities in the extreme. They may feel for separated families at the border but are appalled that border-crashers demand U.S. entry and residency for years while awaiting asylum decisions.
This Tuesday is not about the drug problem or even gun control. It is essentially about the Constitution and human nature. As disturbing as all the other problems of the world are, voters see our nation at a crossroads in race relations and ideology. Trump’s challenge to the 14th Amendment on birthright citizenship may fizzle but it hits a nerve. Climate change may be back on the American agenda, but so will the debate on human biology – are we what nature says we are, male or female, or is it merely a suggestion?
It may be of some interest that our cousins in Italy, Brazil, and Argentina have all turned to the right, reflecting the Trump fear that traditional society is in danger. Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte represents a coalition with an “Italy First” mentality and anti-immigration as a mantra. Newly elected Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is a radical rightist in a nation steeped in corruption and racial antipathies. Mauricio Macri, elected president by Argentines in 2015, is a business-friendly conservative trying to reverse a century of economic decline in a nation of overwhelming European descendants.
Tuesday’s vote and the next one in 2020 will not put an end to our fears. Unlike elections past which hinged on war or peace, business or labor, region vs region, this time the stakes are visceral – some fear the future, some fear the present? –JLM